Byron Bay Writers Festival

I’ve just returned from my first Byron Bay Writers Festival. With a 3-day open ticket I felt like I was at one of those all-you-can-eat buffets at a swank resort, except the vast choice of delectable treats on offer was for the mind not the stomach (although the food there was pretty good too). For three full days I went from marquee to marquee listening to writers and social commentators speak. There were many that I was unfamiliar with, but there were also many old favourites.

Some of the new included Michael Sala who spoke candidly about the intersection of his lived experience of family abuse with the lives of the characters in his latest novel The Restorer; Bruce Pascoe delivered an impassioned plea for all Australians to look to the future of the planet’s wellbeing and to make changes before it’s too late; and Merlinda Bobis and Heather Taylor Johnson spoke about the interconnection of poetry with novel writing.

Of the familiar, Hannah Kent talked about how Irish folklore related to faeries and changelings informed her latest novel The Good People; Bri Lee spoke about the gender inequality she’s witnessed in the judicial system; and Clementine Ford, Susan Carland and Alice Pung tackled issues of faith and sexism. Peter FitzSimons delivered the annual Thea Astley lecture, in which he passionately argued the case for a Republic and while I didn’t make it to the events with Jimmy Barnes and Richard Roxburgh, I could certainly hear how the laughter at whatever they were saying risked bringing the marquee down.    

But my take home panel from the festival was the curiously titled ‘To Swim in the Sea’ with Julia Baird (journalist, broadcaster, political commentator), Jill Eddington (CEO of UQP) and Charlie Veron (marine scientist). The three were connected by their love of the sea – Julia and Jill are open-sea swimmers and Charlie has spent over 3 years of his life underwater as a scuba diver and researcher.

I think the affinity I felt for these three speakers is that they described what swimming in the sea means to them using similar language to that which I use to describe what walking in the bush means to me. As Julia put it: “space occupation is a measure of human success”, then each spoke variously about how being in the ocean allows them to celebrate feeling small. I use the word ‘insignificant’ to describe how I feel when I bushwalk. I’m neither expected nor welcomed by the places I walk through. And because I walk mostly alone, I don’t have to be someone or something to anybody while I’m there. Plus there’s the wonder and awe I feel for the natural world when I’m in it, something all three panelists spoke of feeling when in the sea. So while one activity is wet, cold and has sharks and the other hot, sweaty and has snakes, both allow for the same disconnection from the often self-imposed demands of being human. Given a number of the panels across the 3-day festival addressed the impact humans are having on the planet, the comments of these three panelists resonated all the more.